Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Marking Myself 'Happy' During the Polar Vortex

It’s 3 degrees outside and dropping. They’re calling this the Polar Vortex, the Arctic Blast, or maybe it’s just Hell Freezing Over. News reports say that Midwest temperatures will be the lowest they’ve been in a generation, that it will be colder in Chicago than in Antarctica.

To think I could be in Florida right now.

I was in Florida until a few days ago. I could have stayed an extra week. But I chose to drive home before the Big Freeze.

I chose this?! I willingly came back to Iowa when the forecast is for 20 below zero with a wind chill of minus 50? I have been suffering from a severe case of S.A.D. and still I chose to come back?

The Weather Channel is scarier than a horror movie.

I knew it was going to be cold if I came back to Iowa. But I also knew I had survived New Year’s Eve of 2018, when Doug, my boyfriend, had his annual bonfire party outside in the woods—even though it was 14 below! (I had also survived waking up the following morning, starting off 2018 with a thermometer reading of negative 19. Happy F**king New Year!)

Doug's wood pile. That's going
 to be one big-ass bonfire.
Doug’s bonfire party tradition spans more than three decades, and he and his farmer friends and family members carry on with it regardless of the weather, such hardy folk are they. That brutal year as 2017 gave way to 2018 everyone joked about how in all the times they’d been to this gathering they had never stood this close to the flames, an inferno so towering it could melt your boots along with your brains. The blaze was so big it could have been used as a funeral pyre, a description that isn’t far off as Doug, in the early years of the party, used to build Burning Man-esque effigies and set them alight.

On that oh-so-festive occasion, our group—there were a dozen of us—huddled precariously close to the fire, holding out our mittened hands toward the heat, continuously rotating our bodies like chickens on a rotisserie to warm all sides evenly. We roasted hot dogs (using 10-foot-long branches Doug had whittled) and drank beer and wine out of thermoses so our drinks wouldn’t freeze. We nibbled on homemade cookies so hardened by the cold they could chip your teeth.

This is what Iowa farmers do for fun?!

Can you feel the heat?

I was only there because my boyfriend hosts the soirĂ©e. I would prefer to spend New Year’s Eve—or any long winter’s night—in my bathtub reading a book or under my down comforter watching Netflix. I tried to be a good and dutiful girlfriend, but I bailed on the party before midnight. Sometime before 11, my friend Carolyn and I announced we were walking home, a distance of a quarter mile away from the fire site, even though there was a fleet of pickup trucks parked nearby and we probably could have taken one. We were tough women. We would brave the elements.

Carolyn and I cinched our coats tighter and wrapped our scarves higher around our faces. We tore ourselves away from the pull of the fire’s seductive heat, turned on a flashlight, and set off across the soybean field toward the house. We trudged over the plowed black soil and ice, taking care not to trip on the dirt clods and snow drifts.

Carolyn and me
As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we could see more of the sky. It was so black and wide, the air so chilled it was crystalline, the stars appeared both closer and more infinite, millions of them illuminated like the dust of crushed diamonds. The night was so serene and surreal it begged the question “Is this heaven?” Carolyn and I, like a pair of baseball players stepping out of the past onto a frozen farm, had to remind ourselves, “It’s Iowa.” We walked in silence, with reverence, as if this were a religious experience or the rapture, as if we were not just communing with the Universe but we were the Universe. No, we weren’t drunk. More importantly, we weren’t cold! And those 20 minutes—outdoors in Ice Age conditions that could kill you—turned out to be the highlight of my holiday.

I wasn’t thinking about this when I left Florida and returned to Iowa of my own volition. Nor was I thinking about my boyfriend and how much I missed him, along with my dogs and cats and goats. Sadly, selfishly, my motivation to go north was based on Florida’s forecast. The Gulf States were going to get a whiff of this Arctic Blast too. If I stayed in the South there would be no dips in the sea or barefoot walks on the beach or margaritas sipped at outdoor cafes because Florida, the Weather Channel declared, might even get snow! Still, I checked my Weather Underground app and Google maps obsessively, toggling back and forth between the two, to see if there was somewhere, anywhere I could go within a day’s driving distance that was warm, or at least warmer. Alas, I wouldn’t be able to reach anyplace summery without getting on an airplane.

This isn't snow, but it felt like it! It's a white sugar sand in Navarre Beach,
Florida, and the wind chill was about 28 degrees when I took this photo.

In the midst of agonizing over a tempting invitation to South Carolina (unseasonably cold, but warmer than the Heartland), I had a phone consultation with my friend Kee Kee. After confessing to her that I already had a trip booked to Arizona for 10 days in February, I came to the conclusion that home is where I needed to be. No matter how low the temperatures would go.

And they will be dangerously low. According to media reports, it will be so cold they are advising you should not talk, let alone breathe when you’re outside.

Is this the Arctic? No, it's Iowa.
Oh, Florida...why did I ever leave you?!

No matter how cold, how uncomfortable, how life-threatening, I promised myself I would not complain about the weather when I got back to Iowa. (Doug—or anyone who knows me—will confirm that my proclivity to grumble increases by 99 percent in winter.) And as the temps continue to plummet—it has already dropped to 6 below in the past hour—and the winds howl, their speeds gaining force, I have yet to utter one negative word about Mother Nature’s deadly assault. Because the forecast indicates it will be in the mid-40s by Saturday. In other words, this too shall pass.

In the meantime, I have the means to endure as I am heavily armed with the essential tools. I have a thick suit of armor, created out of multiple layers of fleece, wool, and down. I have a warm house with a trustworthy furnace, a deep soaking bathtub, and an on-demand water heater to fill it. I have cupboards well-stocked with hot chocolate and red wine. I have flannel sheets on my bed, a down comforter and, best of all, a steaming hot potato of a farmer I can snuggle with underneath it.

I consider my return home something like The Hero's Journey, because avoidable as coming back may have been, there is something that feels noble and right about joining in the battle of survival, not running from it but facing it head on, and going through the test of endurance together. It's like Tea Leoni's character in Deep Impact (the doomsday film about a killer meteor on a collision course with Earth that will wipe out humanity) when she sacrifices her spot in the shelter, giving up her chance to live, to be with her dad, her family. Doug and our animals are my family. And whether it's a meteor hurling toward the earth or, as is the case, a dangerous but far-less life-threatening winter storm blowing across the Great Plains, I wouldn't want to be alone in a Florida motel room. I would want to be—and am—with family.

So, yes, I may be in Iowa in this torturous, record-shattering weather, yet I'm feeling triumphant. Because whether this is heaven—or hell—freezing over, no matter how bad this Polar Vortex gets, I am safe, I am warm, I am home—and I’m very happy to be here.
Stay safe and warm, everyone!

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Plogging is the New Jogging

This essay originally aired as a commentary on Tri States Public Radio (Macomb, Illinois)   LISTEN TO IT HERE

Sticking to my New Year’s resolution to exercise more and spend more time outdoors, I’ve been doing a weekly Sunday morning hike with two other girlfriends. Near Farmington, Iowa, we discovered miles of trails through Shimek State Forest, a managed plantation of timber. The park, which borders Missouri, is enjoyed by hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders—and, as we quickly learned, Busch Light drinkers.

In the winter months, when there are rarely horses on the trails, we hike in the section of the park designated for riding, which gives us more terrain to cover. After all, we are there to get a workout.

Our hikes take us deep into the forest to areas that you would expect to be pristine, but a glint of sun reflects off the ground catching our eye, as we hone in on an object that does not belong there, and then another, and another. Beer cans. Empty cast offs as if the woods—not to mention the ditches of our rural roads—were one big trash bin. Not to single out Busch Light, though that does seem to be the preference of local equestrians, we also find on the trails plastic bottles once filled with Gatorade or Mountain Dew, empty potato chip bags, candy bar wrappers, and some alcohol-spiked seltzer water called Truly, which judging by the number of cans seems to be a new favorite.

During our first hike we picked up as many cans as we could carry, stuffing them in our pockets if they weren’t too dirty and carrying them in our gloved hands if they were.

Thinking the litter might just be a one-off we didn’t bring bags with us on our second hike. But as the snow came and went, more and more cans appeared, like a trail of bread crumbs left behind in the woods, discarded as if aluminum were biodegradable and would magically disappear. We were so compelled to pick up the litter we took turns fighting our way through the undergrowth, getting scratched and tangled up in thorny branches for the sake of Keeping America Beautiful. I sacrificed my fleece jacket to the cause, improvising a garbage bag by zipping it up and tying off the sleeves, filling it with so much trash it looked like a Macy’s parade balloon.

By our third hike it sunk in: if hiking was going to be a regular thing, then so was picking up trash. We came armed with garbage bags and I started wearing my big backpack to carry out what we collected.

After one of our hikes, we posed with our bounty for a selfie, which I later posted on Instagram. The comments came flooding in, along with the revelation that there is actually a name for what we were doing. It’s called “Plogging.” A combination of the Swedish word “plocka upp” (meaning “pick up”) and “jogging,” plogging is defined as “picking up litter while running.” And like fitness trends are wont to do, this new sport is catching on across the world.

There are plogging organizations you can join, events you can sign up for, tips, hashtags, apps, grant programs, and a whole community of ploggers.

The Keep America Beautiful website, kab.org, where you can find all these resources, touts that “Plogging combines cardio and strength in your workout with every squat you take as you pick up litter to be thrown away or, better yet, recycled.”

Lifesum, a Swedish fitness app, claims that 30 minutes of plogging can burn 288 calories. That’s a half hour of trash collecting to work off one slice of apple pie, two Twix bars, or three cans of Busch Light. That’s right. Only 96 calories per can means we’re picking them up by the six-pack.

My friends and I may be hiking, not jogging, but we are definitely burning calories and doing a lot of squatting. We are also doing a lot of grumbling. With each beer can added to the bag we vow we’re going to write to Anheuser-Busch and suggest they run an ad campaign instructing their customers to dispose of their cans properly. Their commercials might also advise that littering is a misdemeanor, and those guilty of the offense—should they be caught out there, say, in the far reaches of a state park—can be fined up to $625 per occurrence in Iowa, even more in other states. What I don’t understand is why risk a fine when you can get your five-cent deposit back on every can? How hard is it to carry your cans to a recycling or trash bin? (Shimek State Forest offers them in several convenient locations around the park.) But what’s most confusing is why anyone would sully the very land they come to enjoy for its purity.

Plogging may be catching on as a positive environmental trend, and I hope more people join in, but how nice it would be not to have this extra incentive for exercise, how nice if more people would “give a hoot and not pollute,” because frankly, all those squats are starting to wear out my knees.